Dark Innovation

For several years I have puzzled over the reasons why Lessons Learned workshops rarely provoke any change or improvement in the next iteration of the process or project. Similarly why is it so damned difficult to turn enthusiastic creativity into humanity saving innovation.

A number of recent theories and ideas seem to suggest that there are some rational and some irrational, invisible forces at work which modify any starting conditions to minimise the likelihood of success of any proposed change.

I have blogged about how to deal with invisible threats before HERE where Walter Wink recommends that we should:

  1. name the powers
  2. unmask the powers
  3. engage the powers


Our first step is to give it a name which I suggest should be termed Dark Innovation in tying with Dark matter and Dark Magnetism which are used to encompass initially poorly understood forces.. Next we need to unmask and make sense of it:


I have just read Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen in which he shares his understanding of the ‘systemising mechanism’ in the human brain and that it is

 those parts of the brain that perceive patterns in changing information, enabling us to figure out how things work and to predict the future

This mechanism he explains has a bell curve distribution throughout humans ranging from level 0 where you notice no patterns at all [not looking for patterns therefore can deal with change] through to level 6 where you have to systemise every moment of your life [anything unexpected is, for them, toxic – and so find change so difficult that they resist it at all costs]

Then while reading Ron Adlers excellent book, ‘The Wide Lens‘  he suggests that most innovation is stifled because it fails to take account of the customer and partner perspective and does not take into account the innovation ecosystem ie the implications and connections of the change being proposed.

Finally there was Drew Boyd who last week blogged about ‘the curse of innovation‘, in particular FT article  on the curse of patents, and frighteningly added another six equally resilient curses/barriers, deep seated in the human consciousness that seem programmed to scupper innovation. Desperation, absurdity, novelty, change and success, but I found the curse of competition the most enlightening:

Great ideas draw attention and support in the form of budget dollars, usually at the expense of another project. Unscrupulous employees have learned to be on guard. They monitor innovation activities carefully so they can “nip ideas in the bud.” They don’t wait for a great idea to develop. Instead, they “volunteer” to be part of innovation workshops so they can spot any threatening ideas as they emerge. They make sure those ideas are seen as “tainted”.

So we seem to have a complex intertwining set of powers that do there best to prevent innovation from happening. ‘Dark Innovation’ should not be seen as malevolent in fact it may be our combined consciousness trying to protect us from the Progress trap.

This Progress Trap was another concept that I self-realised and recognised so well, as I watched the highly recommended documentary ‘Surviving Progress‘ on BBC4 on Monday:

the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse.

I see this as the Innovation equivalent of the ‘invisible hand in economics. Christopher Brooker in ‘the Seven Basic Plots’ of Story explored a similar idea – that all our monster stories emerged from a combined consciousness as a warning of the dangers of egotism. So perhaps our inbuilt resistance to change is an evolutionary defence mechanism

Having named and unmasked, we finally we need to engage these powers. If this is the problem what is the solution:


Innovation does not need to lead to greater consumption and depletion of resources. TRIZ in particular prides itself on trimming, minimising the costs and harms and getting the ‘system’ to supply resources it needs. The Surviving Progress documentary touches on the benefits of messy, unconnected, individually appropriate experiments which is the cornerstone of the Cognitive Edge approach and can be seen as an exemplary example in the Transition Towns projects emerging across the world. My recommended engagement approach would therefore be:

  •  Using narrative methods to understand the perspectives of staff/customers/partners.
  •  Delivering innovation/lessons learned workshops in the wider context of an innovation ecosystem
  •  Using TRIZ methods to ensure the wider aspects are always considered and that benefits versus costs&harms are fully explored.
  •  Ensuring that sustainability/environmental implications are not sidestepped as ‘externalities’
  •  Sharing these benefits via other powerful narrative methods to tilt the playing field and prepare the ground

All the above to be explored and delivered within a ‘cynefin’ understanding of order and complexity

If you are interested in discussing or exploring these ideas further please get in touch, and if you are interested in watching Surviving Progress it can now be seen on YouTube in its entirety, highly recommended here is the two minute trailer:


[Ron Donaldson is an independent Knowledge Ecologist who draws on his vast experience of Cognitive Edge, KM, TRIZ and Innovation teaching in the Aerospace Sector to deliver an ecological approach to Innovation in the form of facilitated workshops and fun packed masterclasses]




1 Comment

  1. I’m currently reading The Little Black Book of Innovation (Scott D. Anthony), and have so far found it to be very accessible and interesting. One of the key premises is that innovation is within reach of everyone, a thesis that, in my experience, too many individuals don’t see or believe. To your point about why lessons learned sessions don’t lead to lasting change, I share your frustration, and I like your perspective. To carry your thought about competition one step further, I think another reason innovation can be so hard to initiate is that the negative impact of being on the losing end of competition compounds upon itself and destroys motivation.

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